Published: May 21, 2010
International Herald Tribune

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — In mid-April my dance company, CityDance Ensemble, opened the Fifth Annual Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival here in the West Bank.

At the end of the performance, 15 dancers stood side by side for their bows before a standing-room only audience in the Palace of Culture. Eight were Americans. Seven were Palestinians. Strangers to one another a week earlier they had performed together in a dance created specially for that evening.

After the bows, a Palestinian official said to me, “you have just done more for Palestinian-American relations than you can possibly imagine.” In the audience were senior government officials, business leaders and no small number of people for whom America’s role in the region evokes a preternatural level of frustration.

Art is a powerful tool of diplomacy throughout most of the world. Choosing an American dance company to open the festival was a symbolic statement as much as an artistic one. It was a reach across the aisle.

Days later, in Tel Aviv preparing CityDance’s planned tour of Israel in 2011, I found myself in conversation after conversation with Israelis who, far from being angered by our participation in the Ramallah festival, were enthusiastic about it — and about its possibilities. “We do not know one another anymore,” one said to me. “Perhaps art can be a bridge for us.”

The Israelis — who, for my money, are producing the finest dance in the world today — understand the diplomatic power of art perhaps better than anyone. Hearing such words from them had deep resonance.

In and of itself art does not build roads nor, certainly, does it dismantle roadblocks or solve the water crisis storming down on the Middle East. But roads must lead somewhere to have purpose, and meaningful solutions only come from communication.

We had made an earlier visit to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to visit Iraqi refugees. The tour was born of the frustration of a New York based nonprofit, Intersections International, over its inability to draw attention through all the normal channels to a diaspora of staggering dimensions.

That tour brought about the creation of a work based on the life experiences of those refugees, and in turn led to the first dance performance in the short history of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, hosted by the co-chairmen of the Helsinki Commission, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland and Representative Alcee Hastings of Florida. Policy had driven the art, and in return art was informing policy.

In March 2009, a young Palestinian musician came to our Washington home studios. When I came to Ramallah a few weeks later, I visited the school in which he trained. “You know, don’t you, that before this school opened he spent his days throwing rocks at the Israelis,” someone said to me. Thank the French — they built the school.

Art and artists can go where government cannot. They turn televised terror into face-to-face interaction and give breathing space to politics and politicians. And they can do it for far less than today’s sophisticated weapons.

The total cultural-programs budget of the U.S. Department of State this year is $11.1 million; one F-22 Raptor, before production was shut down, cost 12 times that. Is this the national balance we seek?

Artists are the seeds and the irrigation in the fields of the future, giving root to the very people, in the very countries, whose youth we most want to empower. John Kennedy, eulogizing Robert Frost, said it best: “he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself.”

Those words still resonate even as they too often fall on deaf ears in the very corridors of power about which Kennedy spoke. We leave fallow the fields of cultural impact at our peril, and waste a resource which by its nature speaks to those truths we hold self-evident.

Paul Emerson, director and cofounder of CityDance Ensemble in Washington, was previously a legislative director for a member of Congress.